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In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed.

As the Greek negotiating team was preparing its latest reform proposal for the country’s creditors, I was walking to the Montparnasse metro station in Paris on my way to the Council for European Studies conference held at Sciences Po. At the station, a woman my age was standing behind the ticket booth. In her attempt to help me buy the most appropriate tickets for the next three days, I (apologetically) revealed to her that I am Greek and that I do not speak French. When she heard the word “Greek,” she put her hand close to her heart and repeated the word in French with compassion and solidarity. She asked me to wait for a second. In 30, she came back with her own credit card, swiped it, and handed over to me the first of the three tickets saying: “This is from me. For Greece.”

It is besides the point that I did not personally need this form of solidarity. It was also of little matter that many of my compatriots would find this story depressing. What resonated in the moment was that this exchange was exactly what the founders of the European Union envisaged: a solidary group of European citizens living in peace and prosperity.

Instead, many EU bureaucrats, ministers of finance, and heads of state saw—and some still see—the Greek crisis as a case study in moral hazards. Greece, the thinking goes, needs to fail now in order to discipline other unruly countries. Its governing party, Syriza, needs to fall in order to dampen the European public’s support for parties that are challenging the EU status quo. From this point of view, a hard line toward Greece is a necessary evil.

This logic, however, fails to understand the real problem in Greece and the psychology of the European public. Indeed, from the periphery, it is the European core, mainstream elites, officials, and institutions that all look rather euroskeptic—that is, skeptical of the very idea of unity, prosperity, democracy, solidarity, and mutual respect for which EU founders worked so hard to nurture. As of this writing, it appears that these elites have reached a deal with Greece, but the way they manage the relationship from here on out remains crucial. To avoid fueling the very euroskepticism and sovereigntist tendencies they want to quell, they have to abandon all ideas of vindictiveness and, instead, foster a spirit of cooperation among equal partners.


The forces supporting Europe’s status quo, namely the euro-establishment spearheaded by the German government, found an opportunity in the Greek financial crisis to reaffirm their commitment to austerity as the main way to guarantee Europe’s continued economic competitiveness. But there are plenty of people who oppose those forces. In fact, at the moment, the deepest divide within European societies is between those who want to leave the EU—in the Greek case this camp is represented mainly by the Communist Party, Golden Dawn, along with some of the more radical members of Greece’s coalition government—and those who want to stay in the union but reform it.

In the first camp are euroskeptics of both the right- and left-wing varieties. They range from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage to Jobbik’s leader Gábor Vona in Hungary, and they have found in the Greek crisis an opportunity to intensify their rhetoric and accuse the EU for operating as a “prison of nations.” It is no accident that during Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ address to the European Parliament last week, euroskeptic parliamentarians of all stripes held up “no” (όχι) signs—in support of Greeks’ recent “no” vote on the June 25 plan proposed to the Greek government by the creditors.

It is not only euroskeptics that sided with the “no” vote, though, but also eurocritics who don’t want to leave the union but want to reform it. In this camp are a number of parties and figures, including the Podemos party in Spain and Lega Nord in Italy. Some in this camp prefer merely an inter-governmental union. Others envision a federal Europe. Tsipras himself is a eurocritic; he is not against the European Union project as a whole, but would like to see less austerity, more democratic EU institutions, and more redistribution of wealth.  

Core Europeans might have interpreted Greece’s “no” as a vote against the euro or even Europe. But, in fact, the Greek people tried to send multiple messages with their vote. For his part, Tsipras interpreted the vote as a “yes” to a different type of Europe. It is questionable whether the referendum led to a better deal, but it gave Tsipras more power at home to get his way. He isolated domestic opposition, turned Syriza into a more cohesive party, and avoided becoming a “Left Parenthesis”—a phrase that refers to a short-lived government of the Left in Greece that some had predicted or wished for.

The vote also deepened cleavages in Greek society, particularly between the young in poor neighborhoods, who tended to vote “no,” and those over 65 and in wealthy neighborhoods, who tended to vote “yes.” Young Greeks, who rightly feel that they had no part in the system that led Greece to financial ruin, are less tolerant of the current deal and status quo European institutions. The Greek youth, who are experiencing 60 percent unemployment rates, have very little patience. They bristle at the humiliating way in which the euro-establishment treated Tsipras and the Greek people. With deep feelings of marginalization, many eurocritics have been pushed into becoming euroskeptics.

How far this process has gone is hard to quantify. In Greece, it is indicative that many Syriza parliamentarians, as well as the head of the Greek government’s minor coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, openly opposed the latest deal as the product of blackmail by the EU. Elsewhere in Europe, Britain’s upcoming “in/out” referendum to decide its own EU membership will be a critical test. For Europe to survive such trials without significant—if not irreparable—damage, the euro-establishment camp needs to demonstrate that it understands where the legitimacy of the European Union project lies: building an ever closer union of peace, prosperity, respect for human rights, and democratic governance. The deal struck on July 13 is far from a promising first step toward this goal.

Namely, the agreement, which was reached after a marathon summit, could lead to a third bailout for Greece, which would come with the transfer of 50 billion euros ($55 billion) worth of Greek assets to a new fund for the recapitalization of Greek banks, immediate pension and tax reforms, and the reversal of many of the economic measures the Greek government has passed since its election in late January. Not surprisingly, when the newest demands became publicly known, Twitter exploded with hashtags such as #ThisIsACoup.


During several decades of economic growth and expansion of the welfare state, EU polities managed to downplay the frictions among and within them. Then the financial crisis hit. The alliances that formed as a result—and the ensuing debates over austerity—cut across the traditional Left-Center-Right ideological axis. In fact, the social cleavages currently dividing EU member states and the populations within them are the product of a dual integration crisis: European and national. The European integration crisis was brought on by the challenges emerging from the recent financial crisis coupled with tensions surrounding the EU’s uneven economic and political development. Meanwhile, the demographic decline across the continent and the inability of European societies to successfully integrate immigrants brought to the fore national integration problems.

Greece was not the only country that faced a financial debt crisis. Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain did as well. In all cases, democratically-elected governments no longer had the ability, due to their participation in the eurozone, to devalue their currency or inflate their economies by printing money. As I wrote in Perspectives on Politics, “they were faced with two suboptimal options: to default or to implement austerity measures (internal devaluation).” Meanwhile, the European institutions opted for policies that would punish the already-suffering countries as a way to prevent further contagion. “These developments have since given rise to Euroscepticism throughout the EU, leading to a growing public dissatisfaction in the crisis-stricken countries with their own governments but also with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, and reminding everyone of the democratic deficit problem that has long existed within the European Union.”

It is perhaps bad luck that all this happened while the region’s poorest were hit with other economic and social challenges. Migration from outside of Europe and from within it, coupled with the governments’ failures to successfully integrate the new arrivals, left some Europeans jobless or fearful for their jobs and uncertain about their place in the continent’s social fabric. In turn, they believed that both their national governments and the EU had let them down, and their euroskepticism took on a decidedly nationalist and populist tinge.

In Greece, most—if not all—citizens agree that the policies of the past five years have utterly failed; they also agree that the “patronage social contract” that underwrote political rule for the past four decades is bankrupt. Meanwhile, even those who supported the “no” vote in the recent referendum—those who consider Greece a “colony of debt”—are internally divided on quintessential questions such as whether one is born Greek or can become Greek. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and others are all facing similar identity crises, which is only exacerbated by the economic situation and the pressures on the welfare state.

All this is happening while austerity—chosen as the main way to keep the euro strong and the EU competitive—has undermined popular support for the union across Europe, not just in Greece. These developments constitute the dual integration crisis: EU and national. The safest way out of this predicament is an ever closer union, a political Europe with a fiscal union and democratically elected institutions that would redistribute more wealth and would achieve competitiveness through innovation, not austerity and internal devaluation.  The hope for such a Europe is still alive. The woman I met in the Montparnasse metro station is a testament to this.

For about a century, economic inequality has been measured on a scale, from zero to one, known as the Gini index and named after an Italian statistician, Corrado Gini, who devised it in 1912, when he was twenty-eight and the chair of statistics at the University of Cagliari. If all the income in the world were earned by one person and everyone else earned nothing, the world would have a Gini index of one. If everyone in the world earned exactly the same income, the world would have a Gini index of zero. The United States Census Bureau has been using Gini’s measurement to calculate income inequality in America since 1947. Between 1947 and 1968, the U.S. Gini index dropped to .386, the lowest ever recorded. Then it began to climb.

Robert Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” (Simon & Schuster), is an attempt to set the statistics aside and, instead, tell a story. “Our Kids” begins with the story of the town where Putnam grew up, Port Clinton, Ohio. Putnam is a political scientist, but his argument is historical—it’s about change over time—and fuelled, in part, by nostalgia.…

Please note: This listing mistakenly had Robert Putnam listed as an author for a short period of time. Robert Putnam's book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is discussed in the article. (March 24, 2015)

In December 2012, thousands of protesters flooded the streets of cities across India, demanding a safer environment for women. A 23-year-old female student had died from injuries sustained 13 days earlier, when six men raped and savagely beat her on a Delhi bus. The case gained international attention, and since then South Asian media have reported dozens more horrifying instances of violence against women, several involving tourists: a Danish woman was gang-raped in Delhi after asking for directions back to her hotel, and an American was raped while hitchhiking in the Himalayas.

Beckert, Sven, and Jonathan Shaw. 2014. “The New Histories.” Harvard Magazine. Publisher's Version Abstract

IN MAY 1968, the university’s students wanted to change the world. Left-thinking ideologies like Maoism and socialism were in their minds, and “Vietnam” was on their lips. They went on strike, skipping classes and exams. They rioted and clashed with police. One student was killed, 900 arrested.

If this sounds like a scene from Kent State, where student demonstrators were killed two years later, that is because the May 1968 unrest at the University of Dakar in Senegal was part of the same general mood around the world that moved students to protest, says Omar Gueye, professor of history at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Gueye spent six months at Harvard during the 2013-14 academic year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH), a program premised on the belief that events like these—not unlike the seemingly contagious uprisings of the Arab Spring—can be fully understood only in a global context. As elsewhere during the student protests of the late 1960s, local factors played a role in Dakar: government cuts in scholarship funding precipitated the strike. But student anger tapped a deeper sense of injustice as well: although French colonial rule had ended in 1960, the university was still French, Gueye explains, and the French military was still stationed in Dakar. “Vietnam”—another former French colony—therefore had a specific resonance among Senegalese students, who felt a sense of brotherhood with the Vietnamese.

HISTORIANS increasingly recognize that trying to understand the past solely within the confines of national boundaries misses much of the story. Perhaps the integration of today’s world has fostered a renewed appreciation for global connections in the past. Historians now see that the same patterns—colonialism, or the rise of small elites controlling vast resources—emerge across cultures worldwide through time, and they are trying to explain why. “If there is one big meta-trend within history, it is this turn toward the global,” says Bell professor of history Sven Beckert, who co-directs WIGH. “History looks very different if you don’t take a particular nation-state as the starting point of all your investigations.”

The rise of a global perspective is one of several trends that are changing the way history is studied and understood.…

Lambert, Craig. 2014. “The Caribbean Zola.” Harvard Magazine, 11. Publisher's Version Abstract

IN THE SPRING OF 2012, Brown University hosted an extraordinary academic conference. “Being Nobody?” honored the thirtieth anniversary of the publication ofSlavery and Social Death Orlando Patterson, Harvard’s Cowles professor of sociology. Giving a birthday party for a scholarly book is a rarity in itself. Even more unusual, the symposium’s 11 presenters were not sociologists. They were classicists and historians who gave papers on slavery in ancient Rome, the neo-Assyrian empire, the Ottoman Middle East, the early Han empire, West Africa in the nineteenth century, medieval Europe, and eighteenth-century Brazil, among other topics. “I’m not aware of another academic conference held by historians to celebrate the influence of a seminal work by a social scientist writing for a different discipline,” says John Bodel, professor of classics and history at Brown, one of the organizers.

But Patterson is no ordinary academician. “Orlando is one of a kind—the sheer scope and ambition of his work set him apart from 99 percent of social scientists,” says Loic Wacquant, JF ’94, professor of sociology at Berkeley. “In an era when social scientists specialize in ever-smaller objects, he is a Renaissance scholar who takes the time to tackle huge questions across multiple continents and multiple centuries. There was another scholar like this in the early twentieth century, named Max Weber. Orlando is in that category.”

PATTERSON IS a historical-comparative sociologist who has written extensively on race relations and, especially, slavery and freedom. Slavery and Social Deathis “a landmark study that has had very broad and deep impact,” says Goelet professor of medieval history Michael McCormick, who participated in the “Being Nobody?” conference (see “The New Histories,” page 52). Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, a kind of obverse to Slavery and Social Death, won the 1991 National Book Award for nonfiction. Like his mentors, Harvard sociologists David Riesman and Seymour Martin Lipset, “Orlando tries to speak to a broader audience,” says Diker-Tishman professor of sociology Christopher Winship. “In many ways, he ranks among Harvard sociology’s last big thinkers—David Riesman, Daniel Bell, Talcott Parsons.”

The study of culture—of values, established ideas, traditions, language, customs, learned behaviors, symbolic materials, including the arts, and other nonbiological inheritances—has been central to Patterson’s work. Sociologists often contrast culture with structure: the “hard” variables that include prevailing institutions, distribution of wealth, education, housing, jobs, and other “physical-world” factors. For decades, researchers have debated whether culture informs structure, or vice versa.

Many scholars oversimplify culture by equating it simply with values, Patterson says. This can lead to paradoxes like citing the same cultural complex as the cause of opposite results. “Confucianism was used in the past to explain backwardness in China, before it became successful. The Confucian ethic was supposedly inconsistent with capitalism,” he explains. “Then China becomes economically successful, and suddenly it is the Confucian ethic that explains its success. The same cultural values can move in either direction. So you need a dynamic approach that shows how culture interacts with structure.

“Culture is a very tricky concept,” he continues. “It’s like Typhoid Mary—you’ve got to be very careful with it! Most conservatives tend to use the concept in a simplistic way. Liberals are wary of it—there is guilt by association.” That association has roots in the 1966 book La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, which gave an in-depth portrait of a former prostitute living with her sixth husband. Liberal critics attacked Lewis’s “culture of poverty” concept as one that “blamed the victims” for holding values that perpetuated their state: he suggested in La Vida and other work that the poor could pass down poverty-related beliefs for generations, and that such values might persist even after people had achieved better circumstances.

“No one talked about culture for a long time,” Patterson says. “Now it is back, but still wishy-washy as a causal explanation. It’s fine now to use culture like [anthropologist] Clifford Geertz does, as an interpretive, symbolic vehicle [in a classic essay on Balinese cockfighting, Geertz interpreted the cocks as symbols of important men in the village], but not as having a causal role in social structures.”

The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, edited and to a large degree written by Patterson (with Harvard graduate student Ethan Fosse as co-editor), to be published by Harvard University Press in January, breaks with that convention. “Orlando is first and foremost an iconoclast,” says Winship, and the new book, about impoverished young blacks in American cities, does challenge some received wisdom. It shows not only how much culture matters to these young people, but also their disproportionately large impact on mainstream culture. In October 2003, for example, a turning point in the history of American popular culture occurred when “all of the top 10 positions on Billboard’s pop chart were filled by black artists, nine of them in the inner-city-created rap genre,” Patterson writes in the new book. “It is hardly to be wondered that the typical Euro-American imagines the African-American population to be somewhere between 23 and 30 percent of the U.S. population, over twice its actual size.”

The Cultural Matrix (with chapters by Winship and by Robert Sampson, Ford professor of the social sciences) may also enlighten some readers by demonstrating black youths’ “deep commitment to some of the most fundamental values of the mainstream—its individualism, materialism, admiration for the military, and insistence on taking near complete responsibility for their own failures and successes,” Patterson writes. The young African Americans are surprisingly self-critical, he notes. For example, he writes that “92 percent of black youth aged 18 to 24 say ‘young black men not taking their education seriously enough,’ is a ‘big problem,’ while 88 percent declare likewise on ‘not being responsible fathers.’” Patterson adds, in an interview, “They are more American than Americans.”

Responsible fatherhood is a particularly sticky issue, one that Patterson has often addressed in his studies of African-American history and culture. Slavery in the American South, he says, left no legacy more damaging than the destruction of the black family—the relations between husband and wife, parent and child. Marriage among slaves was illegal, and slaveholders brutally broke slave families apart by selling off children or parents to other masters. “It is true that many slaves were involved in social units that looked like nuclear families, but these were largely reproductive associations based on fragile male-female relationships,” Patterson says. “In many cases the ‘husbands’ lived on other plantations and needed permission to visit their ‘wives,’ and parents had no custodial claims on their children, who at any time could be sold away from them. To call these units ‘families,’ as revisionist historians have done, is a historical and sociological travesty.”

In his 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the “Moynihan Report”), Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had taught government at Harvard and was then assistant secretary of labor under President Lyndon Johnson, argued that the relative absence of nuclear families among black Americans, and the relatively large numbers of families headed by single mothers—both traceable to slavery and Jim Crow segregation—were a root cause of African-American poverty. Black leaders attacked the report, accusing it of stereotyping black Americans (particularly men), perpetuating cultural bias, and setting back the civil-rights movement. “Moynihan became the bête noire of sociology. He took a terrible beating from academics,” Patterson says. “It was so unfair. He was an architect of the War on Poverty—the most radical national agenda for black people in American history. The critics all admit that slavery was horrible, but balk at the idea that the destructive impact has consequences today. Yet you cannot neglect slavery’s effects on the black family as a critical component of African-American life.”

Patterson and Moynihan befriended each other as Harvard colleagues, and when the University awarded Moynihan, by then retired from the U.S. Senate, an honorary degree in 2002, Patterson served as his escort at Commencement. Five years later, the American Academy of Political and Social Science and Harvard’s sociology department and Du Bois Institute (now part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research) co-sponsored a conference of sociologists and economists, “The Moynihan Report Revisited.” “The conclusion they had come around to,” Patterson says, “was that he was right.”

SLAVERY IS a crucial part of Patterson’s cultural heritage. He grew up in Jamaica, a country that endured almost two centuries of ruthless slavery under British rule. He wanted to understand how “the horrendous colonial past of slavery, and then a pretty oppressive post-emancipation era of 124 years, shape the present in terms of poverty and underdevelopment. In the Caribbean, that is a very radical position: it’s part of the neo-Marxian analysis of the plantation system. One of the great ironies of my life is that when I raise the same questions in the American context, because of the complexities of race here, people see it as conservative: ‘You’re blaming the victim! We don’t want to hear about the past—we want to hear about how present-day economic inequalities explain the plight of African Americans.’ But where I come from—both the British New Left and the Caribbean neo-Marxists—history is critical.”

History rolls though every page of Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death.“Slavery has existed all over the world,” he says, even if many Americans imagine it was unique to the antebellum South. “I asked if there were any common attributes to slavery that differentiate it from other forms of oppression, like serfdom,” he says. “What I came up with is that the fundamental feature of being a slave is that slaves are socially dead—both metaphorically and literally. They have no recognized legal existence in the society. They do not belong to the community, because they belong only to the master, and exist only through the master. I use the concept of natal alienation: they have no rights at birth. This doesn’t mean slaves don’t have communities of their own—they did have a slave life, a slave village. But in the eyes of non-slaves they do not belong, they are non-citizens. So after the United States abolished slavery, one of the first things they had to do was to amend the Constitution to make slaves citizens!

“The idea of social death became very powerful, very useful, especially in explaining what happens after slavery is formally ended,” he continues. “For example, Southern Americans, and Americans generally, found it so hard to accept black Americans after slavery was abolished. The culture of slavery still persisted, which is the idea that ‘you do not belong.’ They were nobodies; people were horrified at the idea that they could vote, like citizens. It even lingers to this day. What is the thing people who don’t like Obama say? They try to make out that he doesn’t have a birth certificate—that he doesn’t belong. Even a black president does not belong!”

AN UNEXPECTED OUTGROWTH of Patterson’s study of the socio-historical significance of slavery was his shift to the study of freedom. “I had gone in search of a man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom,” he writes in the preface to Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. “A lamb that stared back at me, on our first furtive encounters in the foothills of the Western past, with strange, uninnocent eyes. Was I to believe that slavery was a lamb in wolf’s clothing? Not with my past. And so I changed my quarry.” Patterson’s iconoclasm also informs this work. “The idea of freedom is seen as ‘inherent’—so there is nothing to explain,” he says. “[The idea is that] ‘Everybody wants to be free because it is part of the human condition.’ That’s nonsense. Freedom as a value, as a cherished part of one’s culture, as something to strive for and die for, is unusual in human history. You can’t just take it for granted. So the question turns into, how did freedom become important? My explanation is that freedom emerged as the antithesis to the social death of slavery.”

Under slavery, he explains, there were three groups of people: masters, slaves, and non-slaves. “All three come to discover this thing we call freedom through their relationships. For the master, freedom is being able to do what you please with another person: freedom as power. For the slave—well, what does a slave yearn for? To be emancipated, to get rid of the social death that is slavery. Masters encouragethis notion of freedom, too, as the hope of manumission is one of the most powerful ways to get a slave to work. The third group, the non-slaves or freemen, look at the slaves and say, ‘We are not them. We are born free.’ Suddenly, being born free becomes important, in a way it never could be for slaves. Freemen have a different status in society, one that does not depend on their socioeconomic class.

“If you go deep into Indo-European languages, the linguistic evidence is fascinating,” he continues. “The most ancient root of freedom is a word that means beloved orbelonging. The people who first celebrated freedom were non-slaves who recognized the virtue of being born free, and belonging to a community of free people—the beloved. These three forms of freedom lie at the roots of democracy, and the first place it emerged was from the slave culture of ancient Greece.”

BORN IN JAMAICA in 1940, Patterson is the son of Charles and Almina Patterson, a police detective and a seamstress. His parents separated for several years, but eventually reunited. Patterson spent much of his boyhood in the small rural town of May Pen, which, like Jamaica generally, had an almost entirely black population. One day when he was about eight or nine, a one-room library opened under a pavilion in the town park, and the boy was astonished to learn that you could borrow books there. “Borrow books?” he recalled asking the librarian, in a 2013 interview insmall axe, a Caribbean journal of criticism “So I found myself going to this place with the smell of brand-new books, and I could take any book I wanted. It was amazing! I used to go there, and read and read and read….That was atransformativeexperience. I just read. Instead of shooting birds or swimming in the Rio Minho river, I’d go to the library.”

He rose to the top of his classes. Patterson’s mother was a strong-willed, intelligent woman who emphasized education; she made her son her “project.” He won a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, then an overseas college of London University, hoping to study history, but was involuntarily funneled into the new economics program. In 1965, he earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE), and married Nerys Thomas, Ph.D. ’81, a Welsh scholar of Celtic literature. (The couple divorced many years ago and Thomas has since died. They had two daughters, Rhiannon and Barbara.) Patterson cut quite a figure on the London literary scene, publishing three novels, the first when he was 23, as well as essays in the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, and New Left Review, serving on its editorial board. The LSE appointed him to its faculty.

The early 1960s gave the young sociologist a golden opportunity to witness cultural change close-up. When he arrived in Britain in 1962, ”It was still a gray, staid, uptight country,” he recalls. “It was pre-Beatles. You didn’t think of popular culture or fashion when you thought of Britain—they were just imperialists who played cricket. Then, overnight, there was a cultural revolution, and not just music—also theater, and fashion, with Mary Quant. Suddenly it exploded, right in front of our eyes. It showed how important culture is, and how it can change radically, and very quickly. When I hear sociologists talking about culture being slow, thick, and hard to change, I want to say, ‘What are you talking about? You should have lived in Britain in the Sixties!’ ”

Patterson’s first academic book, The Sociology of Slavery,(1967), gave an historical account and analysis of Jamaican slavery across three centuries and was very well received. But his career in fiction started just as strongly. Two novels set in Jamaica,The Children of Sisyphus andAn Absence of Ruins, appeared in England between 1964 and 1967. (Both have been recently reissued.) A third, Die the Long Day, set in Jamaican slave society, was published in 1972.

As its title implies, Sisyphus took inspiration, in part, from Camus: set amid the extreme poverty of the “Dungle,” an urban shantytown in Kingston, it stands as a fair argument for the hopelessness of the human condition. The novel contains one of the first portrayals of the Rastafari, the religious cult made world-famous by reggae superstar Bob Marley, and about which, Patterson says, there has been “a lot of romanticizing. I thought Rastafarianism was their attempt at making symbolic sense of their condition. They thought [Ethiopian emperor Haile] Selassie was God. In reality, Selassie was an authoritarian who was eventually deposed.” ThroughoutSisyphus, Patterson’s dialogue flawlessly renders the Jamaican patois, as in this street encounter with a middle-class woman, related by a Dungle laundress:

“Me see you a’ready,” she say, “is wha’ yu doin’ in dis part o’ Kingston?, so me ask her if is any o’ her business an’ same time she say, “Ah ’member whe’ ah see you now, you come from de Dungle, you is a Dungle pickney, ah can smell it ’pon you, wha’ yu ah do in good people place?”

The Daily Telegraph headline on Sisyphus called Patterson the “Caribbean Zola.” With talent in both sociology and fiction, he had to make a choice. The turning point came when he went to tea at the home of George Lamming, an award-winning Barbadian novelist who had published several books and lectured widely. Lamming owned no car. Patterson had to change trains three times to get to Lamming’s home in “the wilds” of North London. He found the address, and it was a neat cottage, “a pleasant house,” he thought. But Lamming, it turned out, resided in a bedsitter (a one-room studio) above the cottage. On leaving, Patterson thought, “Well, this is not the life for me.” He had his parents to look after, and didn’t feel he could gamble on the literary life. There was a secure career available in the academy.

PATTERSON WAS IN ENGLAND during the watershed moment in 1962 when Jamaica achieved full independence by leaving the Federation of the West Indies. A few years later, despite his successful life in London, he felt a pull to return home. In 1967 he resigned from the LSE to take up an appointment at the University of the West Indies, and built a house in Jamaica. Then, while guest-teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago in the summer of 1969, he got an unexpected phone call from Harvard’s Talcott Parsons, a high-level theorist and one of the most prominent sociologists alive. Parsons offered Patterson a visiting professorship in African-American studies and sociology. He accepted, and soon gravitated toward the latter.

As a Jamaican who grew up as part of a racial majority, Patterson had not been socialized to feel like part of a minority group. Without a personal history of racial discrimination by a majority group, he hadn’t experienced the slights and affronts that assail Americans of color daily. “I never felt awkward here,” he says of the United States. “Not having been raised in a predominantly white society, you don’t see racism, even when it is all around you.” Furthermore, in Jamaica, the focus was on Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE, not the Ivy League. “So being the second black professor at Harvard [after Martin Kilson, now Thomson professor of government emeritus] was no big deal to me, though it seemed to be for others,” he recalls. “I came from the British system where there was no affirmative action, no pressure to appoint blacks, so I took it all in stride.” He has remained at Harvard ever since, and now lives near the Square with his second wife, Anita (Goldman) Patterson ’83, Ph.D. ’92, a Boston University professor of English whom he married in 1995, and their 10-year-old daughter, Kaia.

But his Jamaican ties remain strong. Patterson met Michael Manley when the trade-union leader visited the University of the West Indies when Patterson was a prominent, politically active senior—one of the “young Turks” who were the first generation of Caribbean students to study social science. The two men hit it off.

When Manley won the Jamaican prime ministry in 1972, he appointed Patterson as his special adviser, and the scholar began living two lives. For four to five months annually until 1980, during summers and at Christmas, he changed his clothes to tropical fabrics and departed the academic calm of Widener for the political turbulence of Kingston, where he wrote reports, did a major study on the living conditions of the poor of Kingston, and fed Manley ideas for helping his new leftist government implement a democratic socialist revolution.

It was hardly easy. Manley (who served as prime minister until 1980, and again from 1989 to 1992) “drove Jimmy Carter crazy,” Patterson says, and at one point “the CIA came after us.” (After Manley was photographed embracing Fidel Castro on a 1975 visit to Havana, “there were strong suspicions that the CIA was trying to destabilize the Manley government,” Patterson explains.) The left wing of Manley’s party, which had little actual power but did include bona fide communist D.K. Duncan, who held a minor ministry in the government, was “scaring the hell out of the middle class,” which fled the island; at one point Jamaica was down to two dentists and not many more doctors. In such a transition, “you need managers more than ever,” Patterson says. “You can’t implement things with hotheads who couldn’t run a chicken coop.”

Instead of demolishing tenements to build high-rise public housing “for the 5 percent, while kicking the other 95 percent out to another slum,” Patterson advocated “urban upgrading,” bringing in services like water, electricity, daycare, health centers. “It will still look like a slum, but it is a more livable slum,” he says. “The minister of housing hated my plan.” Patterson did put into place a program that sold 12 essential items to the poor at highly subsidized prices. “It was one of the worthiest things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It meant that thousands went to bed each night, not starving.” Eventually, though, he decided, “I am willing to be a public intellectual, but not a politician or revolutionary. Scholarship is what I wanted to do.”

Alongside his scholarship, Patterson has also taught sociology, emphasizing culture, and has earned a national presence as a public intellectual in the United States. As a teacher, “I try to get my students to be open to different approaches, and not to latch onto the latest bandwagon,” he says. “David Riesman and Marty Lipset always encouraged me to stay a little on the ‘outside.’ ” Consequently, Patterson is very critical of “people who try to set ‘agendas’ as a way of making a name for themselves. They love to call their agenda a ‘new paradigm,’ and promote it as an agenda for the discipline. That usually leads to dogma, and I am hostile to dogma.”

He has skewered dogmas in numerous op-ed essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek, and has appeared on the PBS News Hourand Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC. “I always just write what I think,” he says of his op-eds. “I don’t consider the political or social repercussions.” Though his credentials as a political progressive are unimpeachable, his freethinking essays often upend the settled pieties of academic culture.

In the aftermath of the dramatic 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, for example, Patterson’s New York Times op-ed "Race, Gender, and Liberal Fallacies” insisted that readers face “certain stark sociological realities,” however disconcerting. One such reality related to the allegation of sexual harassment Anita Hill made about Thomas’s behavior when she was his subordinate at work. Though Patterson found Thomas’s legal credentials inadequate for the Supreme Court, and identified himself as a feminist, he went on to assert: “Now to most American feminists, and to politicians manipulating the nation’s lingering Puritan ideals, an obscenity is always an obscenity, an absolute offense against God and the moral order; to everyone else, including all professional social linguists and qualitative sociologists, an obscene expression, whether in Chaucerian Britain or the American South, has to be understood in context.” For Hill to raise Thomas’s bawdy remarks 10 years later was “unfair and disingenuous,” he wrote, the latter because she “has lifted a verbal style that carries only minor sanction in one subcultural context and thrown it in the overheated cultural arena of mainstream, neo-Puritan America, where it incurs professional extinction.” This essay cost Patterson friendships. Yet, some years later, Anita Hill invited him to contribute to a book she was editing, and he happily did so. His philosophy is that “what we do as public sociologists must inform our discipline, too.”

THAT DISCIPLINE ITSELF can be revolutionary, as sociological analysis of the past can clarify the roots of present conditions. For example, Patterson’s first book, on Jamaican slavery, remains the benchmark work on the subject. “Jamaica was the largest and most productive of the British colonies. There was lots of money made from the sugar and coffee plantations,” he explains. “It was like an oil field, or a gold mine—in fact, sugar used to be called ‘brown gold.’ But the British in Jamaica made a harsh decision. Though some slave children did survive, there were high rates of infant mortality. So plantation owners focused on buying their Jamaican slaves from Africa as young adults, then literally worked them to death in eight years or so. Then they’d just buy another slave as a replacement. The demand for slaves in Jamaica far outran the supply from local births; astonishingly, the small island of Jamaica imported more slaves than the United States. Yet by the 1820s—even though the slave trade was abolished in Great Britain and the United States in 1807—the United States had far more slaves than Jamaica, because American masters encouraged reproduction and their slaves could be more cheaply provisioned.

“The money made in Jamaica did not stay there but went back to the owners in Britain,” he continues. “Those great English mansions were built on the backs of Jamaican slaves. The owners were not present on the plantations exercising any proprietary self-interest in their slaves. Instead, they left running the estate to overseers and slave drivers—people with no interest in preserving the slave stock. So they worked them as hard as possible. There were many slave revolts. Jamaica had the harshest system of slavery in world history.”

This sets the stage, he says, for understanding modern Jamaica, an economically underdeveloped and politically disorganized country relative to many of its Caribbean neighbors. Though many social scientists seem obsessed with change, “it is also important to explain continuity and persistence, which is one of the themes that has stayed with me,” Patterson notes. “The problem of persistence has finally emerged as an important one for economic historians. It takes the form of the role of institutions and institutional persistence.”

A lively debate now roils economic history regarding which is more important in determining prosperity: good policies or good institutions. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu (who has collaborated with Florence professor of government James Robinson; see “Why Nations Fail,” July-August 2012, page 9) argues that institutions—such as respect for private property and strong schools—are decisive. The “policy” advocates admit that although institutions are important, enlightened social and economic policies will give rise to good institutions. Both camps recognize, of course, that both policies and institutions are crucial; they disagree only over priority.

In Turnaround (2013), Jamaican economist Peter Blair Henry, dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business, argued the “policies” position by comparing Barbados and Jamaica: two black Caribbean societies that took their institutions from their British colonial rulers and became independent in the early 1960s. “Fast forward half a century, and Barbados has been very successful, while Jamaica is having problems,” Patterson says. “So, Henry says, it couldn’t be the institutions, which are similar—it must be the policies in Barbados that made the difference.”

Patterson is joining the debate with a long paper on the subject. “If you look at history, you find something else,” he says. “It is not just institutions, but playing the institutional game the right way. A lot of African countries had great institutions set up: Zimbabwe is theoretically a democracy, but does Robert Mugabe actually get elected democratically? And factories are fine, but they are useless if you don’t have the know-how to run a factory.

“In Barbados, the colonial elite was ruthlessly efficient and brutal, but at all levels of society, they used black citizens—who thereby acquired the institutional knowledge,” he continues. “There were black policemen, black artisans, black bureaucrats—they got hired even at the expense of poor whites. Right after slavery ended, Barbados abolished the militia, which had been composed of poor whites. They instead created a police force and gave those jobs to blacks, as the elite had decided that the local poor whites were a degenerate, incompetent group. When independence came in 1966, they were already way ahead of the game: they knew what they were doing. They knew how to run a democracy and a court system. They did a much better job educating black citizens. In 1946 Barbadian blacks already had a literacy rate of more than 90 percent; at independence it was close to 100 percent, and today UNESCO ranks the island as one of the five most literate countries in the world.

“The history in Jamaica was very different,” he continues. “Yes, Jamaica did have black civil servants and a colored middle class, but that was far more the case in Barbados. Schools were much more efficient in Barbados. Jamaica had an Afro-Jamaican culture where the peasants were involved: that’s where reggae came from, and it’s a big reason for the cultural vitality of Jamaica. There was not the same degree of acculturation to British ways. Today, Jamaica has a democracy, too, but a very shaky one: hundreds of people die at elections—there’s endemic violence, class conflict, and corruption, and it will have to solve those problems before it can move forward. No one dies during elections in Barbados; Freedom House considers it one of the most democratic countries.”

This is the power of cultural and historical analysis, as practiced by Harvard’s answer to Max Weber, or its Caribbean Zola. Yes, structure, policies, and institutions matter. And another thing that matters a great deal is culture, the legacy that history leaves.

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